Hang Phumira is a veteran traditional dancer and has founded a new generation of artists while providing free lessons as part of his passion to conserve and promote Lakhon Khol, or Khmer masked theatre, and the arts in general.
Lakhon Khol is a centuries-old dance that was nearly extinct following the Khmer Rouge regime. Phumira is one of a few who is trying to revive the dance from near extinction. The ancient art form, Lkhon Khol Wat Svay Andet, was included in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding of UNESCO in 2018.
Phumira, 34, is from Phnom Penh and has five siblings. He is an officer at the Department of Culture and Fine Arts in Kampong Cham province and is hoping that he can share his knowledge with the next Khmer generation to help them understand more about Khmer culture.
Phumira currently teaches art performances at a sport federation facility donated by Hun Many, the youngest son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, in Phnom Penh’s Prek Leap commune, every Sunday. During Covid, he taught students at home.
Phumira also has an ambition to open a school to teach Lakhon Khol, traditional dance, classical dance and other arts without charging any money in the future, just like what he is currently doing.
From a young age, Phumira wanted to become a professional traditional dancer. Thanks to an opportunity, he made his dream come true and now he is giving back to the society of arts. However, he said he has faced difficulties since becoming involved with the arts in 1998 with Lakhon Khol.
“Before I decided to create this art and training group, I thought about it many times because I wanted to be sure of the purpose of creating it. Can it help me, or is it for our society because I really want to open doors and space for people who love and are interested in Cambodian arts but don’t have the opportunity to join with me, especially without any payment,” Phumira told Kiripost.
He explained that he has faced many challenges because he doesn’t have a place for students. Therefore, he requested many venues and they offered him only a small space.
He organised everything alone in the training group, including food, water, and art materials. He added that he has sacrificed a lot physically and mentally because he believes that youth are the “bamboo shoots" in preserving cultural heritage.
Applications are open twice a year to welcome new trainees, who receive certificates after a year of training.
He said that during Covid-19, his students were trained at his home and his parents were fully supportive of his work, providing snacks and electricity for the training.
He thanked many for providing a place for training and a monthly stipend of about $250$ to buy and repair art materials. Phumira added that his students will also perform during the upcoming Khmer New Year in April and the 32nd SEA Games in May.
“Our culture is so beautiful and if people open their hearts and minds to learn about it more and more, the more we know, the more we love, I can ensure,” he said.
Phumira said that sharing knowledge to his students is his motivation to keep moving.
“As a leader who leads hundreds of people, my mind sometimes is unstable, some kids who follow the rules are very good but some have not. If I talk about me giving up, I want to give up since I created the dancing group at Sisowath High School. However, I realized that for the kids who love and want to learn about traditional dancing and then I give up, who will train them?” he said.
He added that all of the equipment and dresses for performance are from his own money and support from his students. However, he noted that with happiness and pride, even though not all of his students will become dancers, at least they can help him teach and pass on these arts to the next generation.
Chhun Chaya, 23, has been Phumira’s deputy for nearly five years and said he has had a passion and love for Khmer traditional dance since he was in high school.
He is currently acting as Preah Ream in Lakhon Khol and even though there are so many challenges in training, Chaya never stopped following his passion.
“We need a long-term form of training and an understanding of each dancing arts because our traditional dance and Lakhon Khol that I’m currently training has a specific scale. It’s not about how to dance without knowing anything about the arts,” Chaya said.
“Sometimes, when I am tired, I think about getting some rest, but I walk on the point that I can keep moving forward and it is my favorite so I decided not to give up and continue along the way that I can,” he said.
Chaya mentioned that youth should pay more attention to Khmer traditional arts as it may be lost one day. However, he suggested that youth can participate by watching and supporting when there is a performance of traditional arts.
“To me, youth should know about Khmer arts because we, the youth, are the protectors after all the teachers grow old. So, if the youth do not pay attention to the traditional arts, it will quickly be lost, and the next generation wouldn’t know about the arts.
“Even if they cannot come and learn about the arts, when there is a show or performance, they can come to support us, so it is also a part of protecting our culture and traditional arts,” he said.
Pork Sreyneang, 18, is from Oddar Meanchey and is one of the students. She said she wants to protect and improve the Khmer culture and traditional arts for the next generation. She hopes to pass on all forms of what she has learned to younger people.
“When I was young, I used to see seniors and teachers dancing and I felt so excited. In the future, I want to be a senior that can train the next generation, even if it's not much but at least our Khmer classical dance,” she said.
Currently, Sreyneang is also a student majoring in tourism at National University of Management. She added that she will perform at the upcoming Angkor Sangkran in Siem Reap, showing the beauty of Khmer culture with a smile and respect.